View from India: Science and technology enrich Indian landscape

National Technology Day is celebrated on 11 May. The day commemorates India's successful testing of nuclear bombs in Pokhran in 1998. On that day, three nuclear tests were carried out in Pokhran, Rajasthan, with a further two tests on 13 May. With this, and becoming only the sixth country to have tested nuclear bombs, India joined the world’s elite nuclear club.

The Department of Science and Technology (DST) says that a high-level digital conference will be held today. Titled RESTART – Rebooting the Economy through Science, Technology and Research Translations – the conference has been organised by the Technology Development Board, a statutory body of DST, and Confederation of Indian Industry. Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted: “On National Technology Day, our nation salutes all those who are leveraging technology to bring a positive difference in the lives of others. We remember the exceptional achievement of our scientists on this day in 1998. It was a landmark moment in India’s history.”

Here, in a two-part series, View From India takes readers through various technologies that have shaped the Indian economy, starting with significant technological developments that have strengthened the country’s space and defence ecosystem.

India is the world’s third-largest military-defence spender. It moved from fourth place this year since it has incurred expenditure to procure warships, submarines, aircraft and helicopters.

Spacecraft journey begins: The country forayed into space in 1975 with its satellite Aryabhata, named after the 5th-century astronomer and mathematician. It was built by the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), Government of India’s (GoI) primary space agency, and launched from Kapustin Yar, a Russian rocket launch. From this, ISRO gained expertise in building and operating satellites and explored satellite technology by conducting experiments in X-ray astronomy and solar physics.

ISRO’s satellite exploration resulted in collaboration with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) to design an experimental satellite communications project. SITE, or the Satellite Instructional Television Experiment, used satellite broadcast to educate the financially and academically illiterate on various issues. From 1975-1976, around 2,000 black-and-white community TV sets beamed these programmes in villages in six states across the country. The television programmes were produced by All India Radio (AIR) and broadcast by Nasa's ATS-6 satellite stationed above India for the duration of the project.

SITE led to the development of INSAT, India’s own satellite programme. Above all, it established the fact that satellite technology could be leveraged for disseminating information. ISRO aimed for a country-wide satellite system, beginning with the Indian National Satellite System in 1982.

In 2004, India’s EDUSAT became the world’s first satellite built exclusively for an interactive satellite-based distance education system. Another aspect is that SITE was a little early in the day, much before television was made commercially available to the masses.

Warm findings of an observatory in a cold desert: With the establishment of the Indian Astronomical Observatory (IAO) in Hanle, Ladakh, India has made it to the list of the world's highest located sites for optical, infra-red and gamma-ray telescopes. Situated at a staggering height of 4,500m, IAO is operated by the Indian Institute of Astrophysics, Bangalore, and is home to the country’s first robotic space telescope, used to observe the universe. This telescope scores for its ability to capture cosmic events that happen in timescales much shorter than light years or years, days and hours.

Scientifically, the site offers visible, infra-red and sub-millimetre observations throughout the year. On a lighter vein, Hanle is picturesque, calm and almost surreal.

Moon Mission: India embarked on its Moon Mission with Chandrayaan-1 in 2008. This unmanned spacecraft had a lunar orbiter and impactor and was launched from the Satish Dhawan Space Center in Sriharikota, Andhra Pradesh. Conceptualised by ISRO, Chandrayaan-1 (the Sanskrit translation for 'Moon craft') gave India the impetus to study the Moon, gather information about lunar volatiles and detect the presence of water on the Moon.

The second lunar exploration, Chandrayaan-2, consisted of a lunar orbiter, the Vikram lander and Pragyan lunar rover. In 2019, it aimed to showcase its ability to soft-land and operate a robotic rover on the lunar surface. The orbiter’s scientific goals include the study of lunar topography as well as exosphere, and map the lunar surface and create its 3D maps. The data derived from the lunar probe can throw light on the lunar surface and, hopefully, provide evidence of water molecules on the Moon. Earlier in the year, ISRO officially announced to the media that India is preparing for Chandrayaan-3.

A new wave opens in India: The country is home to an advanced gravitational-wave observatory called the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO). LIGO-India is a collaborative project between a consortium of Indian research institutions and the LIGO Laboratory in the US, along with its international partners. In 2016, LIGO detected gravitational waves, 100 years after Albert Einstein had predicted the general theory of relativity.

In 2017, the LIGO Scientific Collaboration and Virgo Collaboration announced the detection of a gravitational wave signal from the coalescence of two stellar-mass black holes. Following the two detections during its first observing run in 2015-16, this is the third binary black hole coalescence that Advanced LIGO has detected. India has had a role to play as 13 Indian Institutions have been part of the LIGO Scientific Collaboration, under the umbrella of the Indian Initiative in Gravitational-Wave Observations (IndIGO). Some of the work related to data analysis has been carried out using the high-performance computing facilities at IUCAA Pune and International Centre for Theoretical Sciences (ICTS), a centre of Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) in Bangalore.

LIGO is a multidisciplinary mega-science project that provides research opportunities in diverse domains such as laser, vacuum, optics, computers and physics.

Women fighter pilots: As an experiment, GoI felt it was time to open out fighter stream in the force for women. Mohana Jitarwal, Avani Chaturvedi and Bhawana Kanth were the first women fighter pilots to be inducted into the Indian Air Force (IAF) and were honoured on International Women’s Day this year, opening up a new dimension in IAF. It’s a flying start – let’s hope the community of fighter pilots now has a better representation of women.

Aero show dazzles the skies: India is host to Aero India, Asia’s largest air show. The biennial international military and civil expo and air show is organised by the Indian Ministry of Defense and supported by GoI. Besides showcasing India's air defence prowess, Aero India has been an opportunity for global civil and military aviation companies to forge ties with Indian aerospace companies and the aviation industry.

While we await the 2021 Aero India show, let’s hope that India’s space exploration will open a new world of astronomy. R&D units should hopefully pursue space technologies and we hope for better-powered propellant engines, more impactful missiles, satellite vehicles and rocket systems.  

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